Wednesday 14th July 1993
A man in his sixties, dressed in a neatly buttoned up, mustard coloured frock coat with dark brown velvet collar that was much too heavy for the summer heat and could have only been obtained from a very specialised gentlemen’s outfitter, stopped his measured walk, turned slowly by one hundred and eighty degrees and carefully scanned the busy pavement. When he identified the source of the address he smiled thinly, shifted the folded umbrella into his left hand and allowed his right one to be shaken in a powerful grip.
The encounter that extended into a couple of hours of guarded wine sipping and a pleasant walk by a lively, clear stream did not bring any great revelations in itself. Dr. Bennett boarded the afternoon train to all stations from Oxford to Coventry, then the express to Northampton, in a state hazy grace that had characterised the best part of the past sixty-two years of his life. None of that agreeable oblivion had ever been alcohol induced. In fact, Gordon Bennett was much better known for his sobriety and moderation in all things of the flesh. No, his unconcern with less acceptable sides of life largely came from his deep seated belief that he was only a little man of little consequence and that getting upset over things that he could do nothing about would have been a sign of unforgivable arrogance.
Nor would have anyone ever suspected Dr. Gordon Bennett, the Associate Professor of Trusts at Trinity College, Oxford, lately of Little Manor, near Spratton, Northamptonshire, of the even remotest desire to play with fire. No one seemed less likely to tempt fate, take it into his own hands and shape it to his own image than this small, rotund man that sat quietly in the window seat of the nearly empty carriage and smiled gently at the passing scenery.
He himself had some inkling of that intriguing trait when thirty-six years ago he found himself attired in a grey morning suit, complemented with a pearl grey top hat, a pink tinted shirt, bow tie and top pocket handkerchief. He was looking down the aisle of the St. Mary the Virgin church in Iffley at the chimera of white satin, lace and black curls that was approaching slowly to the sounds of ‘Here Comes the Bride’.
He was striking the first match.
Trying to answer how or indeed why had the tall and effervescently beautiful nineteen-years old Teresa Maria Margarita Lostao Crespo, Margot for short, agreed to marry a penniless and featureless law graduate, six years her senior and seven inches shorter than herself would have been both unprofitable and uncharitable to both parties. It simply happened and lasted for ten years. During that time Gordon continued to study and further their prospects of future comforts through his confidently expected brilliant academic career. Margot continued to work in her family’s bakery, conveniently situated just off George Street, keeping them in luxuries like food and roof over their heads. She also, within the propriety prescribed minimum of time after the wedding, produced a very pink and very loud little creature with a shock of black hair and a pair of bluish grey eyes that they named Teresa because for centuries every first-born daughter in Margot’s family had been given that name. For her middle name they chose Rebecca in honour of Gordon’s long dead and totally unremembered mother. However, within hours from a very beautiful and lengthy ceremony of baptism in the same church during which the baby looked and behaved like a little cherub that promised to fulfil the fervent hopes and expectations of her deeply religious distaff side, she was credited with all the properties of those supernatural beings and was known to all and sundry as Angel for the rest of her life.
Throughout the years that followed Gordon Bennett had been quite contented with that one act of eccentricity, i.e. obtaining the hand of exquisite Margot. The rest of his time was devoted to his studies, his thesis and to the occasional and poorly paid part-time teaching jobs at Trinity, his own old college.
Angel was just about to turn nine in the exceptionally warm and sunny month of May 1967 when Gordon, Dr. Gordon Bennett by that time, got his first full time lecturing appointment at Trinity and took his wife and daughter along with an unspecified number of Lostao Crespos for a pub lunch and an afternoon of family celebrations. There was much talk of a new house in preference to the small rented cottage in Osney and of an addition to the family in the form of a baby son and heir. By September when Gordon’s new appointment was to come into effect, the small Bennett family was going to be rehoused in style – Papa Lostao Crespo unstintingly offered the deposit for the new house and a little something towards a new family car – and Angel was entrusted with the choice of a name for her prospective baby brother.
So, when about a month later Dr. Bennett sharply turned the wheel of his old Morris Traveller into the cobblestoned lane leading up to the soon to be abandoned two up, two down Thistle Cottage, to all the world he had every reason to do so with an easy mind and a song in his heart.
But, he nearly ran into the back of a police car.
There was a number of strange vehicles there competing for the cramped space in front of the wide open house door. Most people milling about were in uniform of one description or another. The women of the neighbourhood in jeans and T-shirts largely stayed within the confines of their own doorsteps, craning their necks to one side or another as people do in most spectator sports.
As soon as he picked his way in between the vehicles and headed for the entrance to his home he was asked by three different people if he was Gordon Bennett, the tenant of 18 Lyssadell Drive, also known as Thistle Cottage. He was nodding vigorously hoping that the admission of his identity would entitle him to information about the cause of all the commotion.
Someone fitted a big mug of light coloured tea into his hand with assurances that it contained a large amount of sugar. Dr. Bennett never took either milk or sugar in his tea. There was a fancifully decorated tea caddy on the kitchen shelf that contained a special mixture of Chinese teas prepared by a little shop in Soho that had been punctually delivered to Thistle Cottage at three monthly intervals over the past ten years. A wedding present from Max Buxton intended to see the young couple in tea through to their silver anniversary. The liquid steaming out of the thick rimmed mug in his hand smelled nothing like his special concoction but Dr. Bennett swallowed a few sips because that was obviously expected from him by people who seemed to have a much greater degree of knowledge and control of the situation than himself.
Finally, he was taken by the elbow and gently led into the small kitchen by a young lady dressed in jeans and simply styled shirt with rolled up sleeves who introduced herself as Detective Sergeant Jennifer Spriggs. She waited for him to make himself comfortable in one of the four dining room chairs, but remained standing herself. She told him in very simple words that as far as they, the police, could establish, Mrs. Bennett had collected her daughter from school as usual, brought her home and given her something to eat, judging from the small plate covered in bread crumbs and smeared with jam and a glass with the remains of milk left in the sink. After that Mrs. Bennett brought a ladder out of the new shed at the bottom of the back yard, positioned it against the wall of the house and climbed it to the top rung, carrying a heavy water can in her hand. From that position Mrs. Bennett conducted a brief and cheerful conversation with Mrs. Applewhite next door, largely about the exceptionally fine weather they’d been having and the consequent need to water the hanging baskets rather more frequently than was usual for the time of the year. Mrs. Applewhite complimented Mrs. Bennett on the appearance of her hanging baskets and returned indoors to feed her own hungry brood. A very short time after that, Mrs. Applewhite couldn’t be certain about the exact duration of time that had elapsed between the brief exchange with Mrs. Bennett and the event itself, but she was confident, said DS Spriggs, it couldn’t had been longer than say five minutes, there was a crashing sound and a scream coming from the Bennett’s back yard. Mrs. Applewhite who rushed out immediately on hearing the sounds was obliged to climb the dividing fence on her side in order to see into the Bennett’s yard, which was quite difficult for her because she was a lady of rather generous proportions and was wearing soft-soled house slippers on her feet at the time. However, she was able to establish that Mrs. Bennett was lying prostrate and immobile under the ladder that fell over her, the watering can a few feet away and on its side.
DS Spriggs felt it was important for Dr. Bennett to understand that Mrs. Bennett was totally motionless immediately, she emphasised “immediately”, after the fall, which indicated that she had died instantly and didn’t suffer at all. That was completely in line with the medical examiner’s opinion, even though as Dr. Bennett could no doubt fully appreciate being a law lecturer himself, it was all still subject to the pathology report.
Dr Bennett nodded his appreciation of that point. DS Spriggs then asked him if he felt able to walk the short distance to the back yard where the incident team have just finished their work, and formally identify the deceased.
The ladder had been removed from where it must have originally landed and was leaning against the garden wall, next to the half open gate. There were a few people about and they fell silent the moment Dr. Bennett and his escort appeared at the door. Someone bent over a white shrouded form and pulled back the sheet. It was at that point that Dr. Bennett realised with a small shock that he’d expected some sort of a miracle. In his heart of hearts he had hoped that the face suddenly exposed to the late afternoon light and mute stares would be that of a stranger, sad but anonymous.
And in some extraordinary and deeply disturbing way, that’s what it was. He quickly confirmed, more by motions than voice, that the body was that of Teresa Maria Margarita Lostao Crespo Bennett.
But, Margot she was not.
Gently but firmly he declined the offer to spend some time alone with the body before it was carried away. Sergeant Spriggs asked if there was anyone they could phone to stay with him or anyone who needed to be informed about the tragedy. Dr. Bennett said yes indeed, there were many people who needed telling and he was going to do just that as soon as the police were gone.
‘We’ll talk again,’ said DS Spriggs.
The police cars and the ambulance drove quietly away. Jennifer Spriggs was driven off in an unmarked car, looking straight ahead from the back seat.
As he watched the cars on the motorway below the rail tracks, Dr. Bennett could see her now as she was twenty-six years ago, her right arm stretched forward, holding onto the back of the driver’s seat, her small, rounded chin jutting out in a “next time!” fashion.
The two of them had met in person on only three more occasions over the intervening years. But, visible or not, Jennifer Spriggs was always around, watching. Waiting.
It was quite some time before he had got around to spreading the news. Once the body had been carried away, the interest of the neighbours subsided. They stood for a while chatting to each other, then one by one disappeared behind their doors. The little close was quieter than usual. Normally, children would have had their evening meal by that time and in all that good weather would be playing their incomprehensible and invariably noisy games on the green. But, while none of the neighbours went as far as to walk over and talk to Dr. Bennett or offer their condolences and assistance as is usual in such cases, they marked the occasion by keeping the kids indoors.
Where was Angel?
Dr. Bennett had forgotten all about her. Well, perhaps not exactly forgotten. It was just that Angel had been an inseparable part of Margot, always somewhere around her, and because Margot wasn’t there he didn’t expect to see Angel either. In fact, he wouldn’t had been overly surprised if he saw her, pale and distant, on the same stretcher as her mother. There would have been some weird inner logic in that.
For a long while he stared at the spot in the back yard from where only a short time ago a body had been removed but the woman it belonged to lingered on. There was the kind of peace and ease about her now that he’d always wanted for her.
He turned away with a heavy sigh and knocked on Mrs. Applewhite’s door. No, Mrs. Applewhite hadn’t seen Angel since her mother met her at the school gate, but Dr. Bennett was taken to the back yard and shown the exact spot where Mrs. Applewhite had climbed the rickety fence to find out what was happening next door.
He tried other doors, more from the lack of any other ideas than because he expected to find Angel with any of the families inhabiting the remaining cottages. Angel had been spending her time either with her mother or with her numerous cousins. Even at school she hadn’t made many new friends and could mostly be seen during the breaks in deep and serious conversation with Bella, the daughter of yet another member of the Lostao Crespo clan, Dr. Bennett couldn’t remember exactly who for the moment.
A few, mostly women, who answered the door asked him to come in and said how sorry they were about what had happened, others needed a few moments to recognise him before denying seeing Angel at all that day.
Dr. Bennett returned to Thistle Cottage. It had turned completely dark by then and he sat there for a few minutes letting the sadness enfold him like a cloak. So many things that could have but hadn’t happened. So many regrets. But no guilt. Not then. Not yet.
He felt actual physical pain in his muscles as he climbed the narrow stairs to have another look in Angel’s tiny bedroom. He half expected to find her sat up on her bed reading or just daydreaming. When she wasn’t, he looked under the bed and into the mirrored wardrobe. Then he crossed the small landing into the master bedroom, only by a few square feet larger than Angel’s. It smelled of lavender. There were sachets of dried lavender in all the drawers and sprigs of it mixed with other dried flowers in the blue glass vase on the dressing table. Downstairs it was oranges, big bright coloured globes, spiked with cloves and hanging decoratively from wherever something could be hooked to. In passing he twisted one of the oranges with his fingers and sent it into a spin. It gave out the sweet smell of decay.
Having nowhere else to look, a few minutes later he ended up opening the door to the shed in the back yard. He hadn’t taken the torch with him but the moonlight was bright enough.
And there she was.
With untypical clarity of observation Dr. Bennett saw it all at once; the little barrel-like body pressing itself hard against the shelf behind, the dirt smeared face, the heels digging into the wooden floor, the hands pushing the body backwards, away from him, her fingers leaving dirty marks on the freshly varnished boards. And above all, the eyes. Wide open and terrified they were. Unforgettable.
Dr. Bennett said something like ‘Come here.’ or ‘There you are.’ His voice was low, not very sure of itself. He extended his arm as if to reach her, then withdrew it because it was shaking. He made some more noises, not articulate but reassuring. She remained speechless and motionless until he said he was going to ask Tito, which was what she called her Spanish grandfather, and the rest of the Family over to break the tragic news to them. Then he walked off and left the back door open.
During the moment of stunned silence between his brief and possibly somewhat over-dry account of the accident and Margot’s youngest sister Rosita’s piercing scream down the phone, he heard the gurgle of the pipes and the sound of water running in the bathroom above.
The Lostao Crespos descended on Thistle Cottage in record numbers. Each and every one of them paid homage to the spot where Margot had fallen and died, making a silent sign of cross over the mottled stone slab. When everyone was accounted for Papa Lostao Crespo offered a short prayer, in a mixture of Spanish and Latin, and thanked the Lord that Margot’s mother wasn’t among them any longer and was spared the pain that no mother should suffer. Dr. Bennett’s lips moved in unison with the others. With the rest of the Family children, Angel was kneeling inside the spontaneously formed circle. Her father couldn’t see her face but he watched her wipe her palms dry on her trousers a couple of times, then press them back together in front of her face.
Several bottles of unlabelled red wine from the family vineyard outside Zaragoza unleashed the tears and untied the tongues. The Family unanimously decided that they had tolerated Margot’s Church of England wedding and even Angel’s christening in the same church, but a funeral was something else. One couldn’t be careful enough with funerals. After all, that was about Margot herself and her last chance to arrive to the gates of Heaven. Papa Lostao Crespo stood up on his feet at that point and Dr. Bennett wondered if that was in order to be more persuasive or to get closer to God himself. He agreed, wholeheartedly, as he mouthed a silent apology to Margot for not getting married in the Roman Catholic church in the first place and for not christening Angel there either. It would have probably meant a lot to her. There had been so little that he had ever been able to do for Margot.
Except for a single last act of kindness which he couldn’t bear to think about.
The Family moved on to other matters. The cottage was too small for someone to move in and look after both Angel and her father, but there was no reason why Angel couldn’t move in with any one of her aunts, aunts by marriage or cousins, all of whom had numerous children and one more wouldn’t make any difference at all. Dr. Bennett muttered that he didn’t want to inconvenience anyone, which was treated as pure nonsense. He added that he was perfectly capable of looking after himself and his own child. That was completely ignored. When he offered a notion that Angel had only just lost her mother and that losing her home and father as well wasn’t a good idea, there was an affronted outcry from all sides. Were they not her family? Were their homes not Angel’s home? Tia Rosita was emerging as a clear winner because she had the biggest house and only two children, for the moment anyway, but Angel walked over to Sara, took her hand solemnly into her own and asked quietly ‘May I live with you, Tia Sara?’
Swaying about slightly in time with the movement of the train, Dr. Bennett pulled his waxen eyelids over his eyes. Sara. Widowed for the second time in thirty years. She’d be sixty-five now. Three years older than him and twenty years more alive than he’d ever been. He’d had a card from her at Christmas from Tarifa. The B&B was practically running itself and she was glad of the company of the guests. ‘On a clear day you can see Africa,’ she’d printed clearly in tiny capitals along the edge.
Back in 1967 Sara, the eldest son Enrique’s widow of some two years, was thirty-nine years of age, living childless and neglected at the Family fringe. Young Angel may have been bestowing a favour on her rather than asking for one.
Tito raised his eyes to the ceiling and put one of his hands on Angel’s head and another on Sara’s. ‘Ah, the brother and sister are together, looking down on us, and smiling. Margot and Ricco have spoken.’